The Howard League for Penal Reform

Books For Prisoners: Today we are celebrating

From today, prison rules have been changed so that families and friends can send books to prisoners. This is the culmination of the Howard League campaign.

In addition the numerical limit on the number of books that can be held in-cell is also removed. Hitherto, prisoners were permitted to have a maximum of 12 books in their possession. For some prisoners this was acceptable, but for people who were studying or serving long sentences the limit was inhibiting their ability to progress and learn. As prisoners have increasingly limited access to libraries, possessing books in their cell has become a lifeline.

Two local bookshops have been added to the list of approved retailers and the Prisons Handbook can be sent to prisoners via Prisons Org UK.  Amazon is still not on the approved list.

The sending or handing in of audio books is no longer limited to prisoners with learning difficulties or disabilities.

Yoga mats have been added to the standardised facilities list and the entries for wristwatches, heart rate monitors and alarm clocks have been amended to reflect that digital displays are permitted (but not including ‘smart phone’ technology).  Straps are also permitted for heart rate monitors.

I don’t need to go over the arguments again. It is patently obvious to anyone with common sense that curtailing access to books, for anyone anywhere, is always retrograde. So today we are celebrating.

September 1, 2015 · Frances Crook · One Comment
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Campaigns, Government policy, Prisons

More on the criminal courts charge

The absurdity and unfairness of the criminal court charge seems to get worse every day. I hear from lawyers now that people have been given an absolute discharge even though it was obvious they were guilty. This was done as a way of avoiding imposing the charge.

This is what appears to be happening. People who face multiple charges for offences committed, for example several incidents of shop lifting, sometimes have the cases dealt with at different hearings. You can be tried for one offence, convicted and sentenced and the court charge imposed. The case brought to my attention involved a man who been sent to prison (I don’t know his crime). He was then brought back to court for an offence committed prior to the one that resulted in a prison sentence and the imposition of the mandatory court charge. It appears he was given an absolute discharge because the court would have to impose a second mandatory charge on  him had he been found guilty. The court recognised he was not in position to pay a second charge, and probably never would be. There was simply no point in imposing a charge that would never be recovered.

It seems that courts are finding ways to circumvent the criminal court charge when it is patently obvious people cannot pay.

A second case involved breach of a civil order. The man was given an absolute discharge. Without a conviction, the victim surcharge is not imposed nor is a cost order.

When ordinary people find things are unfair, they are quite right to challenge and even to refuse to comply. It appears the courts are doing just that.

August 27, 2015 · Frances Crook · One Comment
Posted in: Campaigns

The criminal charge and the role of the courts

The Howard League’s campaign for a review into the mandatory court charge is centred around the cases going before magistrates each and every day. Reading the court reports of the homeless and hungry being fined and having the charges imposed on them reads like something from pre-Dickens. It begs the question, what are the magistrates’ courts for?

The magistrates’ courts have hardly changed in the last few hundred years. Whilst other public services have come and gone and been subjected to radical reform, the courts would still be recognisable to an eighteenth century observer. I welcome that the new secretary of state for justice, Michael Gove, is looking at the courts and how we could save money and make them serve the community better.

The court charge, whilst being manifestly unfair, has at least focussed attention on the financial penalties applied to people who are stealing food and clothing. Sitting in a magistrates’ court and reading court reports from across the country reveals hundreds of cases of men and women who are alcoholic and homeless people begging in the street. These people are annoying and they are sometimes intimidating. But they are not serious criminals. What kind of country have we become?

The woman caught stealing a Mars bar because she hadn’t eaten for days after her benefits were stopped was arrested, prosecuted and magistrates imposed court fines and charges amounting to £330.

The 24 year old man, found slumped in the street, homeless and drunk, fined  £37, with a court charge of £150, prosecution costs of £85 and a victim surcharge of £20, left the court owing £292 in total.

And in a case not involving the courts (yet), there was the couple ejected by West Yorkshire police from a car they’d been living in because it wasn’t taxed. The police then went on to photograph them walking away from their shelter with a couple of plastic bags, in order to deride the couple on social media.

The police, crown prosecution service and magistrates should not be taking these people through the criminal justice system and imposing financial penalties that will never be paid.

It is time things changed. Magistrates could be given more powers to solve problems instead of just punishing the indigent. Already some have resigned because of the prescriptive nature of the financial punishments they have to impose and this signals that there is a mood for a radical review of the purpose of magistrates courts. It is no longer viable, ethical or effective for magistrates simply to hand out a menu of punishments that have no link with reality and are bereft of accountability. This is a costly and purposeless exercise. All these good people are propping up a malign and rotten system. We can do better.

August 17, 2015 · Frances Crook · 4 Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Campaigns, Government policy, Sentencing

Education in children’s prisons

New rules that children in prison must be given 30 hours a week education come into force on 17 August. In theory this is a good thing, however, the devil is in how prisons are going to be able to cope.

The specified timetables show two slots per day each of three hours. This implies that young boys will be in the class room for three hours, twice a day. Anyone who has taught teenage boys will know that they have plenty of physical energy and need to run about a lot. Whilst physical education is included in the programme, it will be delivered in a great chunk and this still means that most days will be hours in the classroom.

A recent analysis of the young adult population in prisons revealed that 80% had been suspended from school, 72% had played truant and 58% had been permanently excluded. They did not thrive in a classroom-based environment and found the rigour of paying attention for long periods to classroom-based activities impossible.

I have seen some excellent and imaginative teaching in prisons. But to force 30 hours a week of mostly classroom based teaching on children, and indeed on teachers, is not going to work.

It could work if prisons are flexible, but only if short periods of class teaching are interspersed with outdoor physical education and creative activities. Imagine a literacy class of 45 minutes, followed by 45 minutes of football, 45 minutes of maths and 45 minute of painting. I would hope the boys would get a full curriculum that included history (my subject, so obviously the most important), geography, the sciences including practical lessons, languages and of course, PSHE that would include sex education.

Somehow I can’t see that happening. Both Feltham and Cookham Wood prisons are officially rated as performing poorly and the other prisons holding children only reached most of the targets.

Local authority-run secure units have delivered 30 hours of education to their children for years. It is generally very high quality and the children attain proper qualifications like GCSEs and A levels. But, they have good staff ratios, qualified teachers and decent facilities.

Prisons are going to struggle to deliver the sort of education that these children will enjoy. Education is not a punishment, it should be a pleasure.

July 31, 2015 · Frances Crook · No Comments
Posted in: Children and young people, Inside prisons, Prisons


We had a call from the partner of a prisoner who is being held in Littlehey, a C training prison.

She said that due to an unusually large number of prisoners being sent to hospital, there are not enough staff on the wings.

When a prisoner is held in a hospital it can mean that up to six staff are out of the prison doing bed-watch round the clock. Six prisoners in hospital multiplies that as the men may not even be in the same hospital never mind on the same ward. The impact on a prison with a total staff complement of 180 officers who work on shifts with the normal sick absences and holidays, losing as many as 36 staff all at once means the regime is decimated.

As a result the regime in the prison now involves men being locked up from 5.15pm until 1.15pm the next day. They’re then unlocked to collect lunch until 2pm. From 2pm and 4.45 they’re in workshops. They then have 45 minutes to make phonecalls, shower, pick up dinner, exercise, go to the library, or anything else they might do until lock up at 5.30pm. At the weekend there is almost total lock down all day and all night.

As prisoners get older and more have to spend time in hospital, this kind of situation will become more common. Older prisoners tend to be serving longer sentences and are held in training prisons. These prisons are intended to offer work and activities in preparation for release. If older prisoners are sent to hospital it restricts the regime for the hundreds of younger inmates. They will not be getting the training or education they crave and need. Their opportunity to earn a little pocket money so they can call  home or buy extra food is taken away. Resentment would be normal.

Last week the independent monitoring board report on Littlehey prison was published. It said that

•   A significant number of the men at Littlehey are elderly and staffing levels do not recognise the specific needs of an aging population in terms of health and social care, as well as the increased requirement to escort prisoners to outside hospital appointments.

•  The number of hospital appointments and bedwatches has put more pressure on the staffing levels which are already limited.

•   There is also now a need for escorts for external hospital appointments

The Board also drew attention to the fact that only 50 out of a 1206 men will receive a specific intervention to challenge their prime offence – a sexual offence. It is hardly surprising that prisoners are not getting the courses they need to address their crime if the staff are being deployed elsewhere. These courses are required to show the parole board that offending behaviour has been addressed. If people cannot take part in them they are much less likely to be released, so clogging up the system even more.

We expect an inspection report on Littlehey to be published shortly


July 27, 2015 · Frances Crook · 4 Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Inside prisons, Prison officers, Prisons

Virtuous lives in prison

The more I think about Michael Gove’s idea that prisoners should lead a virtuous life and could earn early release the more I think if they are brought together, it might be very interesting. I am not used to dealing with intellectual secretaries of state, they usually use mundane and pedestrian language that reflects a limited vision and political expediency.

If the Ministry of Justice has to consider how to cut 25 to 40 per cent of its budget it needs a new discourse with the public. The only way to achieve savings on this scale is to reduce the number of people sent to prison, speed the release process and keep the daily population down. It may only be a thinking Conservative who can succeed.

This secretary of state knows that education is not just about reading and writing. The Blair government poured millions into basic skills teaching in prisons and it made no apparent difference, attached as it was to the usual targets that are easy for institutions to ‘game’. The explosion in the population meant that prisons were merely delivering programmes and not educating people.

The recent deterioration in conditions has had a devastating effect. Prison life today is intellectually, morally and physically moribund. It is a living death. There is no cultural experience, no music, no theatre, no forum for exchange of ideas, nothing that we would recognise as forming the basis of a good life. People are trapped in sordid cells with a television and slop around fetid landings in saggy jogging clothes to an inane activity if they are lucky to get out at all. No wonder self-injury is at epidemic levels and violence is commonplace. Young men thrash out in frustration and fear when they are caged in squalor.

The vision of prisoners being given the opportunity to live a virtuous life inside and on release is something quite different. A virtuous life that finds the treasure in the soul of the man or woman in prison would be a new kind of incarceration entirely. I don’t know what the secretary of state has in mind but it must offer opportunities for people to thrive.

There are people in prison who need help with basic skills but that does not mean they are not able and willing to participate in higher learning and cultural activities. There is plenty of evidence that people engaged in creative activities like painting and theatre are less likely to self-harm or exhibit violence. This is beneficial for safety in prisons and bodes well for reduced reoffending.

Allowing prisoners to earn early release must not be just about attending offending behaviour courses, I want to see something much more exciting from the secretary of state. He has the chance to transform prisons.

July 24, 2015 · Frances Crook · One Comment
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Government policy, Inside prisons, Prisons, Rehabilitation

The government’s response to the Justice Select Committee’s report on women

The government has responded to the Justice Select Committee’s report on women and it is a very mixed bag.

To start with the positives:

Caroline Dinenage clearly stated that she wants to see fewer women in prison, particularly those who are primary carers for young children. This is very welcome news.

She also pledged support for the Greater Manchester Whole System Approach, which includes early intervention and referral to a women’s community service at the point of arrest. The Howard League and the APPG for Women in the Penal System championed this model in a recent publication on preventing unnecessary criminalisation of women. The Minister doesn’t seem to have a plan for how to spread this approach yet. It will be much trickier to establish in smaller cities and rural areas.

However, compared to Michael Gove’s recent response to the Justice Select Committee’s Prisons: Planning and Policies report this response is very brief and focuses on setting out and defending the policies adopted over the last few years rather than engaging with the committee’s recommendations and setting out the changes the new administration wants to make.

I wonder if it is because Michael Gove is concentrating on the big problems and leaving women to his junior ministers, who will inevitably be more influenced by officials who themselves grew up in the old order.

The committee’s major concerns about the impact of Transforming Rehabilitation on women are brushed off with vague ‘robust contract management’ statements. This of course is nonsense, as the ministry of justice and the local networks have no track record of robust contract management. The opposite is the case. The lack of robust contract management led to the fiasco with tagging and two years later the Serious Fraud Office is still trying to unpick the mess.

There is little recognition of the funding difficulties facing women’s centres, the response was just the usual line that Community Rehabilitation Companies can choose to fund them if they want to. This is a disaster waiting to happen. I was talking to the manager of one of the best women’s centres only two days ago who was pleased as punch that her funding was secured until March 2016! That short-term funding is no way to run a service or treat employees and service users. It also means that managers spent an inordinate amount of time scrabbling around for funding and putting in bureaucratic bids and monitoring forms instead of helping women in need.

Baroness Corston’s key recommendation of a women’s estate comprising only a few small, local units is completely rejected. The response that the National Offender Management Service has set up several PIPEs (for people in prison with serious mental health needs) is bizarre, as they are completely different issues. I’m worried that there is a lack of understanding of the arguments for small units for the few women who need to be in custody.

Furthermore, fewer women having access to Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL), despite a virtually non-existent failure rate and a very positive impact on resettlement and reducing reoffending, doesn’t seem to cause great concern.

Overall this is a disappointing response that doesn’t appear to have grasped the opportunity to do things differently.

July 23, 2015 · Frances Crook · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Government policy, Women in custody, Women in the penal system

Brinsford prison

The inspection report on Brinsford prison published today shows that it is possible to turn a dreadful prison round. The question is, how was it done?

In 2013 it was holding 569 young adults in dire conditions. The prison was filthy, violent and festering with crime. The Chief Inspector of Prisons said that it was the worst he had seen.

A troubleshooting governor was parachuted into Brinsford. By February 2015 when the latest inspection was carried out much had improved. The prison was safer, cleaner and more purposeful. The problems have not all been solved as the inspectorate points out. Attendance at workshops and education was still too low with a third of the young men locked in their cells most of the time.

So what changed?

Firstly the number of young prisoners was radically reduced. The latest inspection shows 393 being held although the prison is certified to have place for 545. The governor steadfastly refused to accept overcrowding, even turning away vanloads of extra young prisoners who consequently had to be held in other already crowded prisons.

Secondly the number of staff was maintained and I understand some of the old guard were ‘moved on’ and new staff selected for their positive attitude were recruited.

Thirdly, a lot of money was spend on refurbishment. A lot. New windows, repainting and repairing everything in sight. The obsessive security was lifted so that corridors were spacious and light. The grounds were cleared up and planting improved.

Charismatic and energetic leadership made the difference because it was evident that the well-being of the institution was paramount. Budgets and some rules were ignored in order to make the prison a safe and functioning environment for young prisoners and for staff.

But, that kind of leadership cannot be guaranteed to every prison and the difference was partly based on significant additional financial investment and a big cut in the number of prisoners.

The lesson for other failing prisons is that it is simply not possible to improve without more money, fewer prisoners and investment in staff. It doesn’t come cheap. To roll this out across the prison estate would be impossible as they face cuts of up to a billion pounds. The only solution is to cut prison numbers and then we can replicate the success at Brinsford.

July 21, 2015 · Frances Crook · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Government policy, Inside prisons, Overcrowding, Prison officers, Prisons

Michael Gove and prisons

I listened with care to Michael Gove’s speech on prisons this morning. I welcome his vision and his language. I like the idea of prisoners leading a ‘virtuous’ life. As a putative classicist the pursuit of virtue is of more than philosophical interest.

But – and there is a very big but – when I asked him  how he was going to achieve his objective of improving conditions, particularly education, when there are too many prisoners and not enough staff, he replied that he is still considering sentencing and will speak about that at a later date. Understandable, perhaps, but it is the crucial question which cannot be ducked for long.

Today the Secretary of State came up with three suggestions, two of which are problematic.

I welcome the move to give prison governors more autonomy. When I was in a prison recently I asked the governor about his budget and he replied that he didn’t have one. Every decision is being made centrally by NOMS. He had no power to buy extra food, employ additional teachers or change any of the way money is spent. This was in part a Chris Grayling power grab and in part the legacy of years of contracting out by NOMS and reversing it would empower governors to invest staff time in things that matter and make a difference.

The second suggestion was that as much of the Victorian prison estate is crumbling we could sell off the valuable central London sites and use the capital to build shiny new prisons. I do not think this will work, not least because we have been here before. The Conservatives looked at this in some detail before the 2010 election and it was fraught with problems. Some of the prisons are not owned by the Ministry of Justice but by the Queen or rich landlords. So the Ministry may not get the profit from any sale. The cart and horse argument is pretty tricky too, as you have to build the new prison to house people before you flog off the old one. New prisons get filled up immediately so you end up with the full new one and the full old one – one reason why the prison estate has steadily expanded over the years.

The third suggestion was to let people out early if they have learnt to read and write and proved their willingness to engage with learning. This is already the case with people on longer sentences as part of the parole process involves showing that people have engaged with education or employment. Nonetheless, providing more opportunities for prisoners to earn release could ease pressure on the prison population but not if it merely substitutes current arrangements – it must go further if it is to work. At the same time, the Secretary of State should understand that prisons are so overcrowded and understaffed that not enough prisoners are getting unlocked in the first place to go to classes. Prisoners mostly want to learn and work, it is the prisons that are the problem.

These are helpful public debates. The tone is positive and the ideas are interesting. The most important element of what Mr Gove said is that he recognises there is a problem. Now he needs to analyse the exact dimensions of the problem. Finally, solving the problem will require radical and courageous leadership.

July 17, 2015 · Frances Crook · 8 Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Government policy, Prisons, Rehabilitation

Suicide in prison

Thirteen men took their own lives in prisons during May. I think this may be an all-time high. We have already had notice of seven more self-inflicted deaths in June.

The Howard League gets notification every time anyone dies in a prison. This includes people who take their own lives, people who have died from apparent natural causes and others who die in circumstances that require further investigation. The Prisons and Probation Ombudsman published a report this week on the deaths of people linked to drug-taking. In addition, five people have been killed in prisons so far this year.

Three of the 13 who took their own lives in May were aged 18 to 24, the age group covered by Lord Harris and his team in his report published last week. The Harris inquiry was the most comprehensive review of why people take their own lives in prisons and what we have to do to prevent this.

These men are dying in overcrowded, understaffed local prisons like Wandsworth, Leeds, Exeter, Liverpool, Durham, Norwich. Staff cuts and an increased number of prisoners mean that staff don’t have time to get to know people and prisoners don’t have time to get to know staff. There are only a handful of support staff on duty at night doing patrols. Men are locked in their cells for most of the time. This is a sad existence.

Something must be done to reduce the prison population, and quick. I met the new Secretary of State last week and had a very constructive and wide-ranging conversation. I suggested two pressure points that could be addressed that would ease the prison crisis.

Firstly, far too many men, women and children are being sent to prison on remand – and 70 per cent of those remanded by magistrates’ courts are found not guilty or are given a community sentence.

Secondly, something must be done to improve the release process for long-term prisoners.

A suicide in prison is a lonely and desperate act. It should never happen.

July 8, 2015 · Frances Crook · One Comment
Posted in: Inside prisons, Mental health, Prison officers, Prisons, Self-injuring, suicide